BY JUSTIN SABATA
Thursday was one of Kansas’ busiest days of the year regarding COVID-19, beginning when Gov. Laura Kelly signed an executive order requiring Kansas citizens to wear a mask in public spaces. The topic of masks has been cause for fierce political arguments and, as predicted, that continued after the order.
As seen throughout the pandemic timeline, local counties have the option to not enforce the governor’s orders. In a late-afternoon meeting, the Ellis County Commission voted 3-0 in favor of not enforcing the mask mandate.
During the meeting, Ellis County Health Director Jason Kennedy addressed the question on whether or not masks work.
“There is no doubt that face masks work, in certain situations and in certain places and times,” Kennedy said. “Face masks work inside of a home, where you have close or high population density, they work in areas of high viral load.”
Kennedy stated there is not enough data to determine the effects of face masks in areas of low population density. As the meeting progressed, Kennedy expressed why he believes the mask decision should be left up to the people of Hays.
“No matter what comes of this, I think we should encourage, I think we should support, and I think we should allow businesses and individuals, no matter what the decision, to make a choice to protect themselves, the patrons of their business and those around them,” Kennedy said.
Second District Commissioner Dustin Roths was the first to voice why he disagrees with the executive order — primarily, due to the lack of data and local hospitalizations.
“That’s my problem with the mandate,” Roths said. “I would say, from the beginning, is if I saw data that would warrant any such thing, then I’d probably be more willing to consider it.”
Roths encouraged mask-wearing if necessary, then said he would not be mandating anything in the near future.
“I would encourage anybody who wants to wear a mask that might be at risk, that may be around other people and not be able to social distance for a period of time, feel free,” he said. “We’d actually probably encourage it if you’d like to. But, as far as mandating, I have no intention of mandating people to do anything in the United States of America.”
Third District Commissioner Dean Haselhorst agreed residents should wear masks if they believe they should while in public.
“I had a lot of good conversations with a lot of people,” Haselhorst said. “And, I just told them right before I walked in here, if you feel threatened at all when you’re out in public or at a gathering, please do wear a mask.”
One person from the public approached the podium to voice her concern on why masks should be mandated. FHSU English Professor Cheryl Duffy said while those who are vulnerable should wear masks, it does not matter as long as no one else is. Duffy, a cancer survivor, wears a mask in public since she is one of those at risk.
“To say, ‘If you’re at risk, wear a mask,’ this mask doesn’t protect me very much; it’s when the other person wears the mask,” Duffy said. “And I don’t think that that is new information that I’m bringing to you today, but you’re acting as if that is new information.”
Duffy then refuted Roths’ statement regarding mandating and the United States.
“I would also say, to your comment, ‘I don’t support mandating anything in the United States,’ well, we mandate speed limits so that we can protect one another,” Duffy said. “And, I see this as a comparable issue.”
Duffy said she hopes the commission will keep the best interest of the health of residents when they make a decision.
“I just would expect my county commissioner to do what’s best for the health of this county during a pandemic,” Duffy said.
First District Commissioner Butch Schlyer agreed with his fellow commissioners regarding mask enforcement. After discussing the issue with Ellis County residents, Schlyer concluded that whether the masks work or not is not the key reason for the social uproar.
“People don’t really care if it’s (masks) effective or not. They don’t want to be told they have to wear it. That sense of independence, in this part of the country, people just thrive on,” he said.
Schlyer continued to describe the people who decide not to wear masks in public.
“They don’t want to be dictated to and mandated to, and especially by some bureaucrat in a far and distant land.”
Schlyer reflected on some key events so far this summer, mostly the Black Lives Matter protests and the governor’s recent order, and how it relates to Ellis County.
“For the past 30 days, as I watch TV, I see people running around with signs yelling, then they’re looting stores and they’re burning buildings, then they’re shooting people, then they’re occupying spaces in cities,” Schlyer said. “And I think, ‘Gosh, it’s so nice to live in this part of the country where we still respect persons, family, God, our flag.’ And then the governor turns around and says, ‘But now, you’re going to wear a mask,’ and that just completely turned me off.”
This decision came after a Thursday morning question-and-answer event hosted by Kennedy. The event was initially intended for downtown Hays businesses, not residents, but shifted to a public Q&A after questions were submitted.
One question involved the concerns of local businesses struggling if masks were not mandated. Kennedy highlighted that, although masks may not be required, a business can still enforce it.
“I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t give you legal advice on what you can do for your business,” Kennedy said. “But, I do know that you can enforce, or put in place, any mandate or regulation inside your own personal business.”
A key concern by some residents is if the order was not followed, would there be an increased risk within the community?
“In the state of Kansas, if we look at the numbers as of Thursday morning, 93% of the death toll is in the population 55 and over,” Kennedy said. “Only 23% of the cases are in that same population.”
Kennedy elaborated on what this statistic means:
“Meaning that young people are contracting the virus, however, the older people, especially those over 65 with pre-existing comorbidities, are the ones that are leading to the highest percentage of the death toll,” Kennedy said. “Fifty percent of the death toll in the state of Kansas comes out of nursing homes.”
Although those numbers are grim, Kennedy said it is at least positive that young healthy people are not succumbing to the virus at the same rate.
“Those numbers are not good, but they are encouraging,” Kennedy said. “That the majority of people that are getting the virus are not in the population of the people that are having a high mortality index.”
Kennedy focused on the importance of protecting the vulnerable and encouraged the public to make the best decisions for themselves.
“We need to be more stringent and protective of those in long-term care facilities, we need to be more stringent and protective of those over 65 or those who have pre-existing medical conditions,” Kennedy said. “You need to be more stringent in protecting yourself if you are in those populations.”